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Remembering John Perry Barlow

The world knew John Perry Barlow better as an early Internet pioneer; but for Deadheads he will remain a lyricist for their beloved band

John Perry Barlow in 2014. Photo: AP
John Perry Barlow in 2014. Photo: AP

I did two things early this month when I read that John Perry Barlow had died. I fished out Go To Heaven, a studio album by the Grateful Dead that I hadn’t heard in ages; and I searched for an interview with him that I remembered reading in this publication several years ago. Barlow was an internet pioneer who for much of his life led a campaign for a cyberspace free of government meddling and controls. He was also a lyricist for the Dead—the “junior lyricist" for the band, as he sometimes described himself. In the Mint interview with Pavitra Jayaraman in 2011, Barlow talked about a new project to create biofuel; and about the need to maintain the openness of the internet. But he also spoke about his songwriting with Dead, and, in particular, about his long collaboration with the band-member and friend Bob Weir.

There were probably several reasons why I put Go To Heaven on my playlist that morning. First, when it was released in 1980, it marked a sort of milestone for some of us Indian Deadheads then. Getting hold of music by that band wasn’t easy those days—the mind-blowing live shows that they were known for were out of reach for the tiny tribe of dedicated fans in India; and even their studio albums were hard to lay hands on. Not so when Arista Records issued Go To Heaven—the album was released simultaneously in India and we got to buy pre-recorded cassettes at the same time as fans elsewhere in the world. Everything about the album was a disappointment. The cover was cheesy, with what looked like a disco-era portrait of the band, its members in all-white suits, Jerry Garcia in sunglasses; and the music markedly different from the psychedelic, improvisation-rich sound that the band was known to us for.

The critics roundly slammed Go To Heaven when it came out and even Deadheads showed their disdain for what then seemed to be a sell-out by their beloved band. The Dead had recently recruited a new keyboardist, the late Brent Mydland, and he had brought the sound of Moog synthesizers with him. Some songs on Go To Heaven were dubbed “commercial" and compared to soft rock, even disco. Over the years, however, things changed and the album’s appeal slowly grew. Some songs on it, such as Althea, written by Garcia and the “senior" lyricist of the band, Robert Hunter, became a regular in the band’s live set lists, and, when you go back to listen to it again, you realize that it wasn’t that bad an album, really.

The main reason I chose Go To Heaven was that it has four songs (of the nine on the original album) whose lyrics were written by Barlow. On three of them, including the eminently segue-able Lost Sailor and Saint Of Circumstance, Weir was his collaborator and singer, while on the fourth, Easy To Love You, Mydland partners him. Those four are by no means the best songs that Barlow wrote for the Dead but they do mark a moment, as the album’s sound itself does, in the band’s storied 30-year history that stands apart from its previous as well as later work. Barlow wrote the lyrics of around 25 songs for the Grateful Dead, most of them with Weir as his partner. The two were friends since their teens and their early collaboration was for Weir’s solo side album, Ace (1972), for which he wrote Cassidy, Looks Like Rain, Mexicali Blues and Black-Throated Wind, all songs that became staples in the Dead’s repertoire.

Of all the Weir-Barlow collaborations, Cassidy is a personal favourite. Named after Cassidy Law, daughter of two Grateful Dead crewmembers, the song also references Neal Cassady, a Beat generation personality on whom Jack Kerouac is said to have fashioned the character of Dean Moriarty in his book On The Road. Years after writing the lyrics to Cassidy, Barlow reminisced: “This is a song about necessary dualities: dying & being born, men & women, speaking & being silent, devastation & growth, desolation & hope." Besides appearing on Ace, Cassidy was recorded by the Dead on their live acoustic collection, Reckoning, and performed regularly at gigs. Two of those live versions stand out for me: a 28 April 1978 performance at Horton Field House in Illinois, featuring superlative drumming by the band’s percussions duo, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and a 12 October 1983 performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden, on which Weir’s vocals are outstanding.

In the Dead’s repertoire of over 180 original songs and numerous covers, the lyrics written by Hunter and by Barlow can seem like the yin and yang of compositions. Hunter’s were marked by their simplicity, rawness, an often-narrative style, and drew quite a bit from traditional songs; Barlow’s lyrics were far more complex, and the end product after Weir’s inputs can often seem slicker. Yet, as with everything about the Dead’s music, the differences actually complemented each other, and, together, they became greater than the sum of their parts.

Barlow, who died in his sleep at 70 after a prolonged illness, was also a multidimensional personality. A one-time cattle rancher, and an early internet and technology adopter, he co-founded the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (of which he was the vice-chairman till he died) to promote and protect digital rights, and defend freedom on the internet. He was a prolific writer, contributing to leading mainstream publications such as Wired and The New York Times, and a vocal activist at global forums. But most of all he will be remembered as one of the two men who wrote wonderful lyrics for songs that changed the lives of millions of fans of an incredible band.

The lounge list

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Estimated Prophet’ (Live at Barton Hall, Cornell University) by Grateful Dead 5/8/77.

2. ‘Cassidy’ (Live at Recreation Hall, Penn State University, 1980) by Grateful Dead from ‘Road Trips’, Vol.3, No.4.

3. ‘Gentlemen, Start Your Engines’ (Built To Last demo, 1988) by Grateful Dead from ‘So Many Roads’ (1965-95).

4. ‘Hell In A Bucket’ by Grateful Dead from ‘In The Dark’.

5. ‘Black-Throated Wind’ by Bob Weir from ‘Ace’.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan

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